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pathways (letters)

8 January 1998

Dear Barry,

Well, I'm back to work after my longest Christmas break in living memory — two and a half weeks! It will take me time to warm up. At the moment, my thoughts seem to be proceeding at a snail's pace. I have three submissions of yours to respond to: Essay 4 (Units 10-12), as well as your notes on unit 13 and unit 14. I'll deal with the essay today, then make an attempt to tackle some of the other items in my in tray. Thanks for your patience!

'Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of "anything goes".' How good is that argument? Can the challenge be met? — It is a sobering experience to confront one's own arguments when they are put forward by someone else. My natural tendency is to attempt to pick holes! The fact is that this question, more than any other, has caused some anxious soul searching. The reply, 'Well, it all depends on the relative urgency of the various calls on your response,' seems altogether too pat, at least as it stands.

Just to give me time to think about objections, let's first tackle the question of the 'slippery slope'. Someone (I can't remember who) actually wrote a book on slippery slope arguments in moral philosophy. The general theme was that the objection, 'if you can't define a precise boundary you are on a slippery slope' is invalid. It is said to be invalid to argue, for example, that because we can't give a precise definition of the point in the development of a foetus when it is no longer morally acceptable to abort, to permit abortion at any stage leads to a slippery slope of increasing permissiveness. (If, for what ever reasons, one is prepared to permit abortion at stage S, then it will not be possible to muster arguments sufficiently strong to refuse permission at stage S + n, where n is an arbitrarily short interval. That, or so it is claimed, leads straight away to a slippery slope.)

Of course, to say that slippery slope arguments are invalid, or at least not always valid, only gets us a short way towards meeting the challenge to an ethics of dialogue posed by the above question.

What about the objections to the 'relative urgency' argument? Here is one that strikes me particularly forcefully. There are various ways in which one can fail, and be seen to fail to 'do the morally right thing', not all of them blameworthy. Weakness of will is one way. Another is lack of the necessary factual knowledge of the particular situation. Another may be called, for want of a better term, lack of 'moral knowledge' ('he didn't know any better'). To this list, it seems we must add a distorted sense of the urgency of various calls on one's response. Doing X would have been the right thing had it not been for the fact that there was a more urgent call to do Y. In the circumstances, ignoring Y for the sake of X was the wrong thing to do. — The question is, how is relative urgency measured? Who has the authority to decide?

It can't be the case, for a particular moral agent, that Y is more urgent than X if, and only if Y strikes that agent as being more urgent than X. For as we have just seen, one's sense of urgency can be distorted. To allow each moral agent exclusive authority to determine the urgency of the various calls on their response would be to introduce a fatal link of subjectivity which would undermine any claim that there exist objective constraints on moral conduct.

The central role of recognition of the 'authority of the other' is the obvious place to look for a solution to this problem (as I note in the course units). The difficulty is seeing what considerations could be mustered for or against in a public discussion of the validity of my personal set of priorities. We are talking of 'dialogue' on two levels here: the various on-going dialogues that define the urgency of the various calls on my response, and, on a higher level, my dialogue with a critic or potential critic of my actions. How can another person ever be in a position to pronounce judgements on such matters?

Perhaps the thing we need here is not some new, clever philosophical argument, but concrete examples which would give meaning and substance to these points. There are a few in the text, but they don't take us vary far. Can you think of some more, better examples?

One last point: the reason for introducing the example of judging a diving context (or the Turner Prize) was to give an example of where an order of priority could be a matter for judgement and agreement in judgements in the absence of a mechanical decision procedure. It serves to head off one source of objection to the idea of making judgements of relative urgency, viz. the objection a utilitarian moral philosopher might raise.

— I am going to check my pigeon hole now, then on to the next assignment. I'll write again shortly!

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner